Sunday, February 26, 2023

Lent 1-A, 2023: Led by the Spirit

Lectionary: Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9 

En el nombre del Dios: que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen.

Welcome to my favorite liturgical season! The deep, dark, transforming beauty of Lent is very simply this: learning and practicing being led by the Spirit to the Spirit.

Matthew tells us that Jesus was tempted by the devil, diabolos, the disturber of our connection with God. This is not a red demon guy with a tail and pitchfork who is nearly equal in power to God and spends his time trying to trick believers away from God. In our discomfort over our own innate propensity for evil, we humans have projected that onto an outer character from whom we think we can disassociate.

The diabolos, the disturber of our connection with God, can be within us, e.g., those inner voices that mollify our guilt as we justify our decision to sin. It can also be outside of us – as Peter was when Jesus had to tell him, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you have your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mt 16:23)

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says all people sin. How he explains that isn’t a shining theological moment for Paul, imho, but his point is well taken. We all sin, so how we understand sin matters. We simply must get beyond the childhood concept of sins being bad things we do and go behind those to what motivates us to do them. That is where we find our diabolos.

When we do that, we have the ability to see ourselves in truth and claim our salvation as the gift it is. As St. John Chrysostom once said, “Let no man mourn that he has fallen again and again, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.”

It's important to note that in our gospel story, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. This is a story describing Jesus’ discernment. Was he ready and was the world ready for Jesus to begin his ministry in the world?

This also may be the most comforting phrase in Scripture this season. God had a plan for Jesus just as God has a plan for each of us, and it is always a plan of love and redemption. God is leading us exactly where God was leading Jesus, not into temptation, but into a life transformed by our connection to the Spirit of God, a connection that will transform the world.

The temptations are present because that is the human condition and because we have free will in our relationship with God. Will we choose to be led by the Spirit into an unknown, possibly painful moment trusting God’s loving plan for us and the world, or will we choose not to enter, remaining where we are? The choice is always ours to make.

When we choose to be led by the Spirit, we know that we will see the truth about our own fragility, mortality, and all the other things about ourselves we often work hard to ignore or deny. That’s why Lent is often experienced as painful and depressing – because we confront the truth that we’ve led ourselves to believe in a version of ourselves that is comfortable but isn’t the whole truth about us.

Jesus opens that truth up in his three temptations: being self-centered, self-doubting, and self-serving. The one who came among us and gave up his whole self for us was as tempted as we are in his humanness. That’s why this story is so important because, by it, Jesus is showing us that as we face the temptations every human faces, the voice of God will speak to us from within as it did for him.

Please notice that at no point in this story do we hear Jesus straining as he did in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus didn’t need to fight or resist the temptations he faced. He simply needed to hear and heed his inner voice, which is the divine voice, that revealed the way for him to go. Our purpose during this season is to learn to hear and heed that same divine voice within us.

In the first temptation, Jesus had to confront his self-centeredness. His bodily hunger made him the center of his thoughts and attention. But the temptation of hunger goes beyond the stomach and into the soul.

Most of us know that some hungers can drive us to terrible decisions if we let them, hungers like the over-consumption of food, drink, or things that don’t satisfy… self-hate that projects out and does harm to others… fear that kills whatever threatens our sense of security – even when those threats are other people, innocent people. Trayvon Martin an unarmed, black teenager shot to death as he walked around his family’s neighborhood, and Breonna Taylor, a black woman asleep in her bed when police busted in and shot her, come to mind here… or the hunger to be important, noticed, or acclaimed.

Which leads to the second temptation: self-doubt. Are we truly worthy of God’s love, mercy, and salvation? Do we need God to prove it on our terms or would we accept it on God’s terms – as a core truth about divine grace?

With self-doubt, there is always the conjunctional temptation of self-importance. Wasn’t Jesus so important that all of heaven and earth would tend to him if he wanted it? For us, this is a classic story of the temptation of privilege. Jesus could have stopped the whole wilderness thing with a word, a divine word, but that would have made him the object of the salvation he came to bring.

Which leads to the third temptation: being self-serving. Jesus, the Christ, didn’t come among us as a King or military power like David. He came as a baby and served as an itinerant preacher whose ministry was by all earthly measures, a failure, as he ended up accused of sedition, tried, and executed. That’s because his ministry wasn’t about him or his success but about us and our successful connection with God. His was the quintessential ministry of servant leadership that we all strive to emulate today.

So, how does all of this relate to our temptations, our ministry in the world, and our Lenten experience?

Jesus was led by the Spirit. So must we be. Jesus was tempted. So will we be. The Spirit led Jesus through temptation, not into it, staying with him and speaking to him all along the way.

In the moment of his temptation, Jesus didn’t fight or exert his human or divine will to get through. He simply allowed the words of God to happen within him and show him the way to go. Likewise, our goal in Lent is not to exert our will but to relinquish it, to let go and be led by the Spirit to the Spirit.

With each temptation, Jesus “heard” a Scriptural quote come into his mind. When we confront the temptations in our lives, we too will hear the words of God come into our minds. Of course, that means we must be spending time in worship and Christian Formation, learning the words of God, the character of God, and the way of God, so that when the inner conflict happens, our preparation can bear this same fruit in us.

The season of Lent invites us to learn and practice being led by the Spirit to the Spirit. May we choose to go on a deep, dark, transforming, journey into ourselves, knowing that we will find God there already loving us, offering to guide, comfort, and make us ready to serve the world in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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